Johnny McKinstry, who’s 28 and from Lisburn in Northern Ireland, is the manager of Sierra Leone. He’s also academy manager of the Craig Bellamy Foundation in the same country. Here, he talks about life as a national team manager, working with Craig Bellamy – and why he didn’t miss a Lisburn Distillery game for almost ten years…

My first game as Sierra Leone manager was in June – a World Cup qualifier at home to Tunisia. Before kick-off, I walked across the field to the dug-out, and thought back to when I was 16 or 17, getting up at 7am on Sundays to coach kids’ football before church. There were 30 to 35,000 people in the ground, I looked round, and I just thought: “Crikey Johnny – you’ve come a long way.”

Realistically, we needed to beat Tunisia to have a chance of qualifying. We were 2-1 up, bossing the game, but conceded a last-minute equaliser. It was soul destroying. After that we lost 1-0 to Cape Verde – another game we should have won – then beat Equatorial Guinea 3-2. Only twice in the past 20 years had we scored three goals in a competitive game, so we’re making progress.

When the national team job became available in 2013, I knew I had a chance. I’ve been in Sierra Leone since 2010, working for the Craig Bellamy Foundation. They wanted to appoint a local coach – rather than look overseas – so I made one or two calls, and got the interview.

I thought: “Sierra Leone need to beat Tunisia to have any chance of qualifying for the World Cup.” So I managed to get DVDs of Tunisia’s and Sierra Leone’s most recent games, and, during the interview, I went through them with a fine toothcomb. I pointed out their weaknesses, our strengths, and over the course of 15 or 20 minutes, explained how we’d win the game. I also had booklets done, printed and bound, so they could follow the presentation. It’s important to put something in their hand, make it tactile. Five or six days later I got the call, saying I got the job.

There was some criticism in the press – saying I was too young, too inexperienced – but I didn’t get that from the public. I’ve lived here for more than four years, and I’m not the type of guy who sits behind the wheel of his white four-by-four. I walk to places, I jump on the back of motorbike taxis, I speak to market sellers, I interact with normal people every day. On the street, there was no criticism – and believe me, Sierra Leoneans are quite forthright. So I thought: “My employers are happy, the supporters are happy, the players see there’s a high quality, that’s all that matters.”

Well-known players in the squad? There’s Kei Kamara who’s at Middlesbrough; Medo Kamara at Bolton; Mohamed Bangura – who was contracted to Celtic then played against them in the Champions League for Elfsborg; Rodney Strasser, who was at AC Milan and now plays for Reggina. Players to look out for? George Davis is a 17-year-old winger, and was only 16 when he made his debut against Tunisia. He terrorised them: quick, likes going at people, incisive, and he’s also got the work-rate to get back. He turns 18 this year, and there’ll be a host of European clubs in for him.

My first bit of coaching was rugby, rather then football. When I was at school (Wallace High School in Lisburn, Northern Ireland) we had an inter-house rugby tournament. In our team, we had a young guy, 15 or 16, and he only played third team rugby. We were playing against the house with the school captain – Chris Henry, who you might have seen playing for Ireland in this year’s Six Nations – and this young lad was saying: “I can’t play against Chris, he’s too big, he’s too fast, he’ll kill me.”

I took him aside and said: “It doesn’t matter how big and fast he is, if you get down low, take him below the knee, you’ll topple him.” And he went out and toppled him. He didn’t do anything else in the game, but he took down Chris Henry. So, for me, there was a seed planted. From there, I started football coaching, did some work experience, did some soccer camps, and I went to Northumbria University (in Newcastle) to do a degree in applied sports science with coaching.

At uni, I coached the university side, I did community stuff for Newcastle United, and I worked with youth teams in Gateshead. It was about getting those hours on the pitch. In 2006, I was named UK Grassroots Coach of the Year by Manchester United, which led to a short spell working at the Right to Dream academy in Ghana. After uni, I got a job in New York, working with the Red Bulls.

I had a colleague who’d worked in New York, and he put me in touch with people out there. They came back and said: “We’ve got a role as head coach of one of our youth soccer partners in Staten Island, are you interested?” It sounded good, but then a day later they phoned back and said: “Actually, our academy and pre-academy have looked at your CV, they want to speak to you.” So I ended up working with top-end Red Bull players between nine and 14. I flew out for a four-month contract, and ended up staying just shy of three years. It was great experience with a great club.

I got the job at the Craig Bellamy Foundation through contacts in Ghana. The people I’d worked with there, at the Right to Dream academy, were hired as consultants for the project in Sierra Leone. Craig didn’t interview me, but he’s on the phone every two or three weeks, sharing his opinions.

For him, hard work comes first and foremost. When he comes over, one of the first things he tells the boys is: “You’ve got to earn the right to play.” And that’s off the pitch too. He’s very big on education, and if the boys aren’t working hard in class, he doesn’t think they should play on a Saturday. They don’t have to get top grades, but they have to try their best.

Having said that, Craig doesn’t micro-manage. He’s ploughed in north of two million dollars over the past few years, he checks on the boys over the phone, but he lets the specialists do their thing. He won’t come in and say: “Do it this way, do it that way.” In real life, he’s very different to his public image. He’s very humble, well-spoken, a great character to have around.

At the foundation, we want the boys to fulfil their potential, whatever that might be. We don’t have a professional club, and we’re a registered charity, so our goal isn’t making money. It’s a bit like a boarding school – we have 30 boys, and if they become professional footballers, then great. But if they go down the academic route, that’s great too. We’ve only been open four years, and we’ve got three or four of our first intake in California on scholarships, another is going this summer, and we’ve hopefully got two boys taking scholarships at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire.

I don’t come from a football family. My brothers were into rugby, and my dad runs a motorbike team, McKinstry Racing, that competes every year in the Isle of Man TT. I learned to ride bikes aged eight or nine on the beaches, but dad was always very cautious. My oldest brother is 41 or 42, and he was only allowed to buy a motorbike four years ago! When I was 15, I came off a bike and broke my collarbone. It was pretty painful, so if I had any lingering ideas of riding full-time, that stopped it.

When I was seven or eight, I asked my uncle which football team he supported. He said Chelsea, but he also said: “And I also watch this local team, Distillery.” He could have stopped at Chelsea! So I went to Distillery and loved it. From the age of nine to 17 or 18 I literally didn’t miss a game, including friendlies. If my uncle wasn’t going, I’d get a lift from one of the other guys.

Supporting a team like Distillery isn’t like supporting Manchester United. They get maybe 300 or 400 supporters – and that’s on a good day – but you get to know the club, the fans, the players. When we won the first division and got promoted, the trophy was brought to the bar, everyone had their photo taken with it, everyone’s happy. My uncle is now on the board, and when I go back, I get an occasional: “You’ll come back and manage here, won’t you Johnny?” And I’m like: “Here, I applied years ago and you said no – you’ve missed your opportunity, you’ll have to wait until I’m 60!”

The next African Cup of Nations takes place in Morocco in January 2015. The qualifying draw is due to take place in April – unfortunately, we have to play in the preliminary round. Sierra Leone haven’t qualified for an ACN since 1996, but we’re making progress, so I’m optimistic about our chances.

Interview by @owenamos for Follow Johnny @johnnymckinstry. For more information on the Craig Bellamy Foundation, visit

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